To a louse

When Robert Burns published his poem, in 1785, he was full of annoyed revulsion that the blastit wonner dared crawl over Jenny’s bonnet in church. You’ve got to have the right accent though. The language is a bit hard to follow 226 years later, but just listen to Robert Carlyle reading it here. Tooth-gritted.

“Love this poem…had to recite it, aged 10, in front of the whole primary school. Ah, memories. To be honest, we weren’t really sure what it was about, as we called them nits. Think it took a few years to dawn on me that I’d been reciting a poem about headlice!” From Sarah Litchfield, herself now a primary school teacher.

I had a comb through recently, and we were all clear. A good sign. And no need for mercurial rozet or fell red smeddum. Incidentally, although inspired by seeing a louse crawling on the bonnet of a lady sitting in front of him in church, Burns is likely to have been describing a body louse on the move, rather than a head louse. No head louse ever knowingly leaves the locks, and it was usually body lice that occurred in hats.

Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her—
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whaur horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right,
Till ye’ve got on it—
The verra tapmost, tow’rin height
O’ Miss’ bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an’ grey as ony groset:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty dose o’t,
Wad dress your droddum.

I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
On’s wyliecoat;
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?

O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin:
Thae winks an’ finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!